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Full text of "John Brown. An address by Frederick Douglass, at the fourteenth anniversary of Storer College, Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, May 30, 1881"

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Harper's Ferrv, West Virginia, May 30, 1881. 

DOVER, N. H.: 



hy the author to storer college, 

the proceeds to <x> to the endowment of a 

John Brown Professorship. 

{Copyright Secured.) 


In substance, this address, now for the first time published, was 
prepared several years ago, and has been delivered in many parts 
of the North. Its publication now in pamphlet form is due to 
its delivery at Harper's Ferry, W. Va., on Decoration day, 1881, 
and to the fact that the proceeds from the sale of it are to be used 
toward the endowment of a John Brown Professorship in Storer 
College, Harper's Ferry — an institution mainly devoted to the 
education of colored youth. 

That such an address could be delivered at such a place, at 
such a time, is strikingly significant, and illustrates the rapid, vast 
and wonderful changes through which the American people 
have been passing since 1859. Twenty years ago Frederick 
Douglass and others were mobbed in the city of Boston, and. 
driven from Tremont Temple for uttering sentiments concerning. 
John Brown similar to those contained in this address. Yet now 
he goes freely to the very spot where John Brown committed the 
offense which caused all Virginia to clamor for his life, and with- 
out reserve or qualification, commends him as a hero and martyr 
in the cause of liberty. This incident is rendered all the more 
significant by the fact that Hon. Andrew Hunter, of Charlestown,. 


— the District Attorney who prosecuted John Brown and secured 
his execution, — sat on the platform directly behind Mr. Doug- 
lass during the delivery of the entire address and at the close of it 
shook hands with him, and congratulated him, and invited him to 
Charlestown (where John Brown was hanged), adding that if 
Robert E. Lee were living, he would give him his hand also. 


Not to fan the flame of sectional animosity now happily in the 
process of rapid and I hope permanent extinction ; not to revive 
and keep alive a sense of shame and remorse for a great national 
crime, which has brought its own punishment, in loss of treasure, 
tears and blood ; not to recount the long list of wrongs, inflicted 
on my race during more than two hundred years of merciless 
bondage ; nor yet to draw, from the labyrinths of far-off centuries, 
incidents and achievements wherewith to rouse your passions, 
and enkindle your enthusiasm, but to pay a just debt long due, to 
vindicate in some degree a great historical character, of our own 
time and country, one with whom I was myself well acquainted, 
and whose friendship and confidence it was my good fortune to 
share, and to give you such recollections, impressions and facts, 
as I can, of a grand, brave and good old man, and especially to 
promote a better understanding of the raid upon Harper's Ferry 
of which he was the chief, is the object of this address. 

In all the thirty years' conflict with slavery, if we except the late 
tremendous war, there is no subject which in its interest and im- 
portance will be remembered longer, or will form a more thrilling 
chapter in American history than this strange, wild, bloody and 
mournful drama. The story of it is still fresh in the minds of 
many who now hear me, but for the sake of those who may have 
forgotten its details, and in order to have. our subject in its en- 
tire range more fully and clearly before us at the outset, I will 
briefly state the facts in that extraordinary transaction. 

On the night of the 16th of October, 1859, there appeared near 
the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, a party of 

nineteen men — fourteen white and five colored. They were not 
only armed themselves, but had brought with them a large supply 
of arms for such persons as might join them These men invaded 
Harper's Ferry, disarmed the watchman, took possession of the 
arsenal, rifle-factory, armory and other government property at 
that place, arrested and made prisoners nearly all the promi- 
nent citizens of the neighborhood, collected about fifty slaves, put 
bayonets into the hands of such as were able and willing to fight 
for their liberty, killed three men, proclaimed general emancipa- 
tion, held the ground more than thirty hours, were subsequently 
overpowered and nearly all killed, wounded or captured, by a 
body of United States troops, under command of Colonel Robert 
E. Lee, since famous as the rebel Gen. Lee. Three out of the 
nineteen invaders were captured whilst fighting, and one of these 
was Captain John Brown, the man who originated, planned and 
commanded the expedition. At the time of his capture Capt. 
Brown was supposed to be mortally wounded, as he had several 
ugly gashes and bayonet wounds on his head and body ; and 
apprehending that he might speedily die, or that he might be 
rescued by his friends, and thus the opportunity of making him 
a signal example of slave-holding vengeance would be lost, his 
captors hurried him to Charlestown two miles further within the 
border of Virginia, placed him in prison strongly guarded by 
troops, and before his wounds were healed he was brought into 
court, subjected to a nominal trial, convicted of high treason and 
inciting slaves to insurrection, and was executed. His corpse 
was given to his woe-stricken widow, and she, assisted by Anti- 
slavery friends, caused it to be borne to North Elba, Essex Coun- 
ty, N. Y., and there his dust now reposes, amid the silent, sol- 
emn and snowy grandeur of the Adirondacks. 

Such is the story ; with no line softened or hardened to my in- 
clining. It certainly is not a story to please, but to pain. It is 
not a story to increase our sense of social safety and security, 
but to fill the imagination with wild and troubled fancies of doubt 
and danger. It was a sudden and startling sin-prise to the peo- 
ple of Harper's Ferry, and it is not easy to conceive of a situation 
more abundant in all the elements of horror and consternation. 

They had retired as usual to rest, with no suspicion that an en- 
emy lurked in the surrounding darkness. They had quietly and 
trustingly given themselves up to " tired Nature's sweet restorer, 
balmy sleep," and while thus all unconscious of danger, they 
were roused from their peaceful slumbers by the sharp crack of 
the invader's rifle, and felt the keen-edged sword of war at their 
throats, three of their number being already slain. 

Every feeling of the human heart was naturally outraged at 
this occurrence, and hence at the moment the air was full of 
denunciation and execration. So intense was tftis feeling, that 
few ventured to whisper a word of apology. But happily reason 
h^s her voice as well as feeling, and though slower in deciding, 
her judgments are broader, deeper, clearer and more enduring. 
It is not easy to reconcile human feeling to the shedding of 
blood for any purpose, unless indeed in the excitement which 
the shedding of blood itself occasions. The knife is to feeling 
always an offence. Even when in the hands of a skillful surgeon, 
it refuses consent to the operation long after reason has demon- 
strated its necessity. It even pleads the cause of the known 
murderer on the day of his execution, and calls society half crim- 
inal when, in cold blood, it takes life as a protection of itself from 
crime. Let no word be said against this holy feeling ; more than 
to law and government are we indebted to this tender sentiment 
of regard for human life for the safety with which we walk the 
streets by day and sleep secure in our beds at night. It is na- 
ture's grand police, vigilant and faithful, sentineled in the soul, 
guarding against violence to peace and life. But whilst so much 
is freely accorded to feeling in the economy of human welfare, 
something more than feeling is necessary to grapple with a fact 
so grim and significant as was this raid. Viewed apart and 
alone, as a transaction separate and distinct from its antecedents 
and bearings, it takes rank with the most cold-blooded and atro- 
cious wrongs ever perpetrated ; but just here is the trouble — this 
raid on Harper's Ferry, no more than Sherman's march to the 
sea can consent to be thus viewed alone. 

There is, in the world's government, a force which has in all 
ages been recognized, sometimes as Nemesis, sometimes as the 


judgment of God and sometimes as retributive justice ; but under 
whatever name, all history attests the wisdom and beneficence oi 
its chastisements, and men become reconciled to the agents 
through whom it operates, and have extolled them as heroes, 
benefactors and demigods. 

To the broad vision of a true philosophy, nothing in this world 
stands alone. Everything is a necessary part of everything else. The 
margin of chance is narrowed by every extension of reason and 
knowledge, and nothing comes unbidden to the feast of human 
experience. The universe, of which we are a part, is continually 
proving itself a stupendous whole, a system of law and order, 
eternal and perfect*. Every seed bears fruit after its kind, and noth- 
ing is reaped which was not sowed. The distance between seed 
time and harvest, in the moral world, may not be quite so well de- 
fined or as clearly intelligible as in the physical, but there is a seed 
time, and there is a harvest time, and though ages may intervene, 
and neither he who ploughed nor he who sowed may reap in 
person, yet the harvest nevertheless will surely come ; and as in 
the physical world there are century plants, so it may be in the 
moral world, and their fruitage is as certain in the one as in the 
other. The bloody harvest of Harper's Ferry was ripened by 
the heat and moisture of merciless bondage of more than two 
hundred years. That startling cry of alarm on the banks of the 
Potomac was but the answering back of the avenging angel to 
the midnight invasions of Christian slave-traders on the sleeping 
hamlets of Africa. The history of the African slave-trade fur- 
nishes many illustrations far more cruel and bloody. 

Viewed thus broadly our subject is worthy of thoughtful and 
dispassionate consideration. It invites the study of the poet, 
scholar, philosopher and statesman. What the masters in natural 
science have done for man in the physical world, the masters of 
social science may yet do for him in the moral world. Science 
now tells us when storms are in the sky, and when and where 
their violence will be most felt. Why may we not yet know with 
equal certainty when storms are in the moral sky, and how to 
avoid their desolating force? But I can invite you to no such 
profound discussions. I am not the man, nor is this the occasion 

for such philosophical enquiry. Mine is the word of grateful 
memory to an old friend ; to tell you what I knew of him — what 
I knew of his inner life — of what he did and what he attempted, 
and thus if possible to make the mainspring of his actions mani- 
fest and thereby give you a clearer view of his character and 
services. y 

It is said that next in value to the performance of great deeds 
ourselves, is the capacity to appreciate such when performed by 
others ; to more than this I do not presume. Allow me one oth- 
er personal word before I proceed. In the minds of some of the 
American people I was myself credited with an important agency 
in the John Brown raid. Governor Henry A. Wise was manifest- 
ly of that opinion. He was at the pains of having Mr. Buchan- 
an send his Marshals to Rochester to invite me to accompany 
them to Virginia. Fortunately I left town several hours pre- 
vious to their arrival. 

What ground there was for this distinguished consideration 
shall duly appear in the natural course of this lecture. I wish 
however to say just here that there was no foundation whatever 
for the charge that I in any wise urged or instigated John Brown 
to his dangerous work. I rejoice that it is my good fortune to 
have seen, not only the end of slavery, but to see the day when 
the whole truth can be told about this matter without prejudice 
to either the living or the dead. I shall however allow myself 
little prominence in these disclosures. Your interests, like mine, 
are in the all-commanding figure of the story, and to him I con- 
secrate the hour. His zeal in the cause of my race was far 
greater than mine — it was as the burning sun to my taper light — 
mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless 
shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die 
for him. The crown of martyrdom is high, far beyond the reach 
of ordinary mortals, and yet happily no special greatness or supe- 
rior moral excellence is necessary to discern and in some measure 
appreciate a truly great soul. Cold, calculating and unspiritual 
as most of us are, we are not wholly insensible to real greatness ; 
and when we are brought in contact with a man of commanding 
mold, towering high and alone above the millions, free from all 


conventional fetters, true to his own moral convictions, a " law 
unto himself," ready to suffer misconstruction, ignoring torture 
and death for what he believes to be right, we are compelled to 
do him homage. 

In the stately shadow, in the sublime presence of such a soul I 
find myself standing to-night ; and how to do it reverence, how 
to do it justice, how to honor the dead with due regard to the 
living, has been a matter of most anxious solicitude. 

Much has been said of John Brown, much that is wise and 
beautiful, but in looking over what may be called the John Brown 
literature, I have been little assisted with material, and even less 
encouraged with any hope of success in treating the subject. 
Scholarship, genius and devotion have hastened with poetry and 
eloquence, story and song to this simple altar of human virtue, 
and have retired dissatisfied and distressed with the thinness and 
poverty of their offerings, as I shall with mine. 

The difficulty in doing justice to the life and character of such 
a man is not altogether due to the quality of the zeal, or of the 
ability brought to the work, nor yet to any imperfections in the 
qualities of the man himself; the state of the moral atmosphere 
about us has much to do with it. The fault is not in our eyes, 
nor yet in the object, if under a murky sky we fail to discover the 
object. Wonderfully tenacious is the taint of a great wrong. 
The evil, as well as "the good that men do, lives after them." 
Slavery is indeed gone ; but its long, black shadow yet falls broad 
and large over the face of the whole country. It is the old truth 
oft repeated, and never more fitly than now, " a prophet is with- 
out honor in his own country and among his own people." 
Though more than twenty years have rolled between us and the 
Harper's Ferry raid, though since then the armies of the nation 
have found it necessary to do on a large scale what John Brown 
attempted to do on a small one, and the great captain who 
fought his way through slavery has filled with honor the Presi- 
dential chair, we yet stand too near the days of slavery, and the 
life and times of John Brown, to see clearly the true martyr and 
hero that he was and rightly to estimate the value of the man and 
his works. Like the great and good of all ages — the men born 


in advance of their times, the men whose bleeding footprints at- 
test the immense cost of reform, and show us the long and dreary 
spaces, between the luminous points in the progress of man- 
kind, — this our noblest American hero must wait the polishing 
wheels of after-coming centuries to make his glorv more mani- 
fest, and his worth more generally acknowledged. Such instances 
are abundant and familiar. If we go back four and twenty cen- 
turies, to the stately city of Athens, and search among her arch- 
itectural splendor and her miracles of art for the Socrates of to- 
day, and as he stands in history, we shall find ourselves perplexed 
and disappointed. In Jerusalem Jesus himself was only the 
" carpenter's son" — a young man wonderfully destitute of worldly 
prudence — a pestilent fellow, " inexcusably and perpetually inter- 
fering in the world's business," — "upsetting the tables of the 
money-changers" — preaching sedition, opposing the good old re- 
ligion — "making himself greater than Abraham," and at the 
same time " keeping company" with very low people ; but be- 
hold the change ! He was a great miracle-worker, in his day, 
but time has worked for him a greater miracle than all his mira- 
cles, for now his name stands for all that is desirable in govern- 
ment, noble in life, orderly and beautiful in society. That which 
time has done for other great men of his class, that will time cer- 
tainly do for John Brown. The brightest gems shine at first with 
subdued light, and the strongest characters are subject to the 
same limitations. Under the influence of adverse education and 
hereditary bias, few things are more difficult than to render im- 
partial justice. Men hold up their hands to Heaven, and swear 
they will do justice, but what are oaths against prejudice and 
against inclination ! In the face of high-sounding professions and 
affirmations we know well how hard it is for a Turk to do justice 
to a Christian, or for a Christian to do justice to a Jew. How 
hard for an Englishman to do justice to an Irishman, for an Irish- 
man to do justice to an Englishman, harder still for an American 
tainted by slavery to do justice to the Negro or the Negro's friends. 
" John Brown," said the late Wm. H. Seward, "was justly hanged." 
" John Brown," said the late John A. Andrew, " was right." It is 
easy to perceive the sources of these two opposite judgments : the 


one was the verdict of slave-holding and panic-stricken Virginia, 
the other was the verdict of the best heart and brain of free old 
Massachusetts. One was the heated judgment of the passing and 
passionate hour, and the other was the calm, clear, unimpeacha- 
ble judgment of the broad, illimitable future. 

There is, however, one aspect of the present subject quite wor- 
thy of notice, for it makes the hero of Harper's Ferry in some 
degree an exception to the general rules to which I have just now 
adverted. Despite the hold which slavery had at that time on 
the country, despite the popular prejudice against the Negro, de- 
spite the shock which the first alarm occasioned, almost from the 
first John Brown received a large measure of sympathy and ap- 
preciation. New England recognized in him the spirit which 
brought the pilgrims to Plymouth rock and hailed him as a mar- 
tyr and saint. True he had broken the law, true he had struck 
for a despised people, true he had crept upon his foe stealthily, 
like a wolf upon the fold, and had dealt his blow in the dark 
whilst his enemy slept, but with all this and more to disturb the 
moral sense, men discerned in him the greatest and best qualities 
known to human nature, and pronounced him " good." Many 
consented to his death, and then went home and taught their chil- 
dren to sing his praise as one whose " soul is marching on" 
through the realms of endless bliss. One element in explanation 
of this somewhat anomalous circumstance will probably be 
found in the troubled times which immediately succeeded, for 
" when judgments are abroad in the world, men learn righteous- 

The country had before this learned the value of Brown's hero- 
ic character. He had shown boundless courage and skill in 
dealing with the enemies of liberty in Kansas. With men so few, 
and means so small, and odds against him so great, no captain 
ever surpassed him in achievements, some of which seem almost 
beyond belief. With only eight men in that bitter war, he met, 
fought and captured Henry Clay Pate, with twenty-five well arm- 
ed and mounted men. In this memorable encounter, he select- 
ed his ground so wisely, handled his men so skillfully, and at- 
tacked the enemy so vigorously, that they could neither run nor 



fight, and were therefore compelled to surrender to a force less 
than one-third their own. With just thirty men on another im- 
portant occasion during the same border war, he met and van- 
quished four hundred Missourians under the command of Gen. 
Read. These men had come into the territory under an oath 
never to return to their homes till they had stamped out the last 
vestige of free State spirit in Kansas ; but a brush with old Brown 
took this high conceit out of them, and they were glad to get off 
upon any terms, without stopping to stipulate. With less than 
one hundred men to defend the town of Lawrence, he offered to 
lead them and give battle to fourteen hundred men on the banks 
of the Waukerusia river, and was much vexed when his offer was 
refused by Gen. Jim Lane and others to whom the defense of the 
town was confided. Before leaving Kansas, he went into the 
border of Missouri, and liberated a dozen slaves in a single night, 
and, in spite of slave laws and marshals, he brought these people 
through a half dozen States, and landed them safely in Canada. 
With eighteen men this man shook the whole social fabric of 
Virginia. With eighteen men he overpowered a town of nearly 
three thousand souls. With these eighteen men he held that large 
community firmly in his grasp for thirty long hours. With these 
eighteen men he rallied in a single night fifty slaves to his stan- 
dard, and made prisoners of an equal number of the slave-hold- 
ing class. With these eighteen men he defied the power and 
bravery of a dozen of the best militia companies that Virginia 
could send against him. Now, when slavery struck, as it certain- 
ly did strike, at the life of the country, it was not the fault of 
John Brown that our rulers did not at first know how to deal 
with it. He had already shown us the weak side of the rebellion, 
had shown us where to strike and how. It was not from lack of 
native courage that Virginia submitted for thirty long hours and at 
last was relieved only by Federal troops ; but because the attack was 
made on the side of her conscience and thus armed her against 
herself. She beheld at her side the sullen brow of a black Ire- 
land. When John Brown proclaimed emancipation to the slaves 
of Maryland and Virginia he added to his war power the force of 
a moral earthquake. Virginia felt all her strong-ribbed mountains 


to shake under the heavy tread of armed insurgents. Of his 
army of nineteen her conscience made an army of nineteen 

Another feature of the times, worthy of notice, was the effect of 
this blow upon the country at large. At the first moment we 
were stunned and bewildered. Slavery had so benumbed the 
moral sense of the nation, that it never suspected the possibility 
of an explosion like this, and it was difficult for Captain Brown to 
get himself taken for what he really was. Few could seem to 
comprehend that freedom to the slaves was his only object. If 
you will go back with me to that time you will find that the most 
curious and contradictory versions of the affair were industrious- 
ly circulated, and those which were the least rational and true 
seemed to command the readiest belief. In the view of some, 
it assumed tremendous proportions. To such it was nothing 
less than a wide-sweeping rebellion to overthrow the exist- 
ing government, and construct another upon its ruins, with 
Brown for its President and Commander-in-Chief; the proof 
of this was found in the old man's carpet-bag in the shape of a 
constitution for a new Republic, an instrument which in reality 
had been executed to govern the conduct of his men in the 
mountains. Smaller and meaner natures saw in it nothing high- 
er than a purpose to plunder. To them John Brown and his 
men were a gang of desperate robbers, who had learned by some 
means that government had sent a large sum of money to Har- 
per's Ferry to pay off the workmen in its employ there, and 
they had gone thence to fill their pockets from this money. The 
fact is, that outside of a few friends, scattered in different parts of 
the country, and the slave-holders of Virginia, few persons under- 
stood the significance of the hour. That a man might do some- 
thing very audacious and desperate for money, power or fame, 
was to the general apprehension quite possible ; but, in face of 
plainly-written law, in face of constitutional guarantees protect- 
ing each State against domestic violence, in face of a nation of 
forty million of people, that nineteen men could invade a great 
State to liberate a despised and hated race, was to the average 
intellect and conscience, too monstrous for belief. In this respect 


the vision of Virginia was clearer than that of the nation. Con- 
scious of her guilt and therefore full of suspicion, sleeping on pis- 
tols for pillows, startled at every unusual sound, constantly fearing 
and expecting a repetition of the Nat Turner insurrection, she at 
once understood the meaning, if not the magnitude of the affair. 
It was this understanding which caused her to raise the lusty and 
imploring cry to the Federal government for help, and it was not 
till he who struck the blow had fully explained his motives and ob- 
ject, that the incredulous nation in any wise comprehended the true 
spirit of the raid, or of its commander. Fortunate for his memory, 
fortunate for the brave men associated with him, fortunate for the 
truth of history, John Brown survived the saber gashes, bayonet 
wounds and bullet holes, and was able, though covered with blood, 
to tell his own story and make his own defense. Had he with all 
his men, as might have been the case, gone down in the shock of 
battle, the world would have had no true basis for its judgment, 
and one of the most heroic efforts ever witnessed in behalf of lib- 
erty would have been confounded with base and selfish purposes. 
When, like savages, the Wises, the Vallandinghams, the Wash- 
ingtons, the Stuarts and others stood around the fallen and bleed- 
ing hero, and sought by torturing questions to wring from his 
supposed dying lips some word by which to soil the sublime 
undertaking, by implicating Gerrit Smitii, Joshua R. Giddings, Dr. 
S. G. Howe, G. L. Stearns, Edwin Morton, Frank Sanborn, and 
other prominent Anti-slavery men, the brave old man, not only 
avowed his object to be the emancipation of the slaves, but se- 
renely and proudly announced himself as solely responsible 
for all that had happened. Though some thought of his own 
life might at such a moment have seemed natural and excusable, 
he showed none, and scornfully rejected the idea that he acted 
as the agent or instrument of any man or set of men. He ad- 
mitted that he had friends and sympathizers, but to his own head 
he invited all the bolts of slave-holding wrath and fury, and wel- 
comed them to do their worst. His manly courage and self-for- 
getful nobleness were not lost upon the crowd about him, nor 
upon the .country. They drew applause from his bitterest ene- 
mies. Said Henry A. Wise, " He is the gamest man I ever met." 


"He was kind and humane to his prisoners," said Col. Lewis 

To the outward eye of men, John Brown was a criminal, but 
to their inward eye he was a just man and true. His deeds 
might be disowned, but the spirit which made those deeds possi- 
ble was worthy highest honor. It has been often asked, why did 
not Virginia spare the life of this man ? why did she not avail her- 
self of this grand opportunity to add to her other glory that of a 
lofty magnanimity ? Had they spared the good old man's life- 
had they said to him, " You see we have you in our power, and 
could easily take your life, but we have no desire to hurt you in 
any way ; you "have committed a terrible crime against society ; 
you have invaded us at midnight and attacked a sleeping com- 
munity, but we recognize you as a fanatic, and in some sense in- 
stigated by others; and on this ground and others, we release 
you. Go about your business, and tell those who sent you that 
we can afford to be magnanimous to our enemies." I say,, had 
Virginia held some such language as this to John Brown, she would 
have inflicted a heavy blow on the whole Northern abolition 
movement, one which only the omnipotence of truth and the 
force of truth could have overcome. I have no doubt Gov. 
Wise would have done so gladly, but, alas, he was the executive 
of a State which thought shje could not afford such magnanimity. 
She had that within her bosom which could more safely tolerate 
the presence of a criminal than a saint, a highway robber than a 
moral hero. All her hills and valleys were studded with material 
for a disastrous conflagration, and one spark oi the dauntless 
spirit of Brown might set the whole State in flames. A sense of 
this appalling liability put an end to every noble consideration. 
His death was a foregone conclusion, and his trial was simply 
one of form. 

Honor to the brave young Col. Hoyt who hastened from Mas- 
sachusetts to defend his friend's life at the peril of his own j but 
there would have been no hope of success had he been allowed 
to plead the case. He might have surpassed Choate or Webster 
in power — a thousand physicians might have sworn that Capt. 
Brown was insane, it would have been all to no purpose ; nei- 


ther eloquence nor testimony could have prevailed. Slavery was 
the idol of Virginia, and pardon and life to Brown meant con- 
demnation and death to slavery. He had practically illustrated 
a truth stranger than fiction, — a truth higher than Virginia had 
ever known, — a truth more noble and beautiful than Jefferson ever 
wrote. He had evinced a conception of the sacredness and val- 
ue of liberty which transcended in sublimity that of her own Pat- 
rick Henry and made even his fire-flashing sentiment of " Liberty 
or Death " seem dark and tame and selfish. Henry loved liberty 
for himself, but this man loved liberty for all men, and for those 
most despised and scorned, as well as for those most esteemed 
and honored. Just here was the true glory of John Brown's mis- 
sion. It was not for his own freedom that he was thus ready to 
lay down his life, for with -Paul he could say, " I was born free." 
No chain had bound his ankle, no yoke had galled his neck. 
History has no better illustration of pure, disinterested benevo- 
lence. It was not Caucasian for Caucasian — white man for 
white man ; not rich man for rich man, but Caucasian for Ethio- 
pian — white man for black man — rich man for poor man — the 
man admitted and respected, for the man despised and rejected. 
"I want you to understand, gentlemen," he said to his persecu- 
tors, " that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of the 
colored people, oppressed by the slave system, as I do those of 
the most wealthy and powerful." In this we have the key to the 
whole life and career of the man. Than in this sentiment hu- 
manity has nothing more touching, reason nothing more noble, 
imagination nothing more sublime ; and if we could reduce all 
the religions of the world to one essence we could find in it 
nothing more divine. It is much to be regretted that some great 
artist, in sympathy with the spirit of the occasion, had not been 
present when these and similar words were spoken. The situation 
was thrilling. An old man in the center of an excited and angry 
crowd, far away from home, in an enemy's country — with no friend 
near — overpowered, defeated, wounded, bleeding — covered with 
reproaches — his brave companions nearly all dead — his two faith- 
ful sons stark and cold by his side — reading his death-warrant in 
his fast-oozing blood and increasing weakness as in the faces of 
all around him — yet calm, collected, brave, with a heart for any 


fate — using his supposed dying moments to explain his course 
and vindicate his cause : such a subject would have been at 
once an inspiration and a power for one of the grandest histori- 
cal pictures ever painted. . . . 

With John Brown, as with every other man fit to die for a 
cause, the hour of his physical weakness was the hour of his 
moral strength — the hour of his defeat was the hour of his tri- 
umph — tne moment of his capture was the crowning victory of 
his life. With the Alleghany mountains for his pulpit, the 
country for his church and the whole civilized world for his 
audience, he was a thousand times more effective as a preacher 
than as a warrior, and the consciousness of this fact was the 
secret of his amazing complacency. Mighty with the sword of 
steel, he was mightier with the sword of the truth, and with this 
sword he literally swept the horizon. He was more than a match 
for all the Wises, Masons, Vallandinghams and Washingtons, who 
could rise against him. They could kill him, but they could not 
answer him. 

In studying the character and works of a great man, it is always 
desirable to learn in what he is distinguished from others, and 
what have been the causes of this difference. Such men as he 
whom we, are now considering, come on to the theater of life only 
at long intervals. • It is not always easy to explain the exact and 
logical causes that produce them, or the subtle influences which 
sustain them, at the immense hights where we sometimes find 
them ; but we know that the hour and the man are seldom far 
apart, and that here, as elsewhere, the demand may in some mys- 
terious way, regulate the supply. A great iniquity, hoary with age, 
proud and defiant, tainting the whole moral atmosphere of the 
country-, subjecting both church and state to its control, demand- 
ed the startling shock which John Brown seemed especially in- 
spired to give it. 

Apart from this mission there was nothing very remarkable 
about him. He was a wool-dealer, and a good judge of wool, as 
a wool-dealer ought to be. In all visible respects he was a man 
like unto other men. No outward sign of Kansas or Harper's 
Ferry was about him. As I knew him, he was an even-tempered 
man, neither morose, malicious nor misanthropic, but kind, amia- 


ble, courteous, and gentle in his intercourse with men. His words 
were few, well chosen and forcible. He was a good buisness 
man, and a good neighbor. A good friend, a good citizen, a good 
husband and father : a man apparently in every way calculated to 
make a smooth and pleasant path for himself through the world. 
He loved society, he loved little children, he liked music, and was 
fond of animals. To no one was the world more beautiful or life 
more sweet. How then as I have said shall we explain his appar- 
ent indifference to life ? I can find but one answer, and that is,. 
his intense hatred to oppression. I have talked with many men,. 
but I remember none, who seemed so deeply excited upon the 
subject of slavery as he. He would walk the room in agitation. 
at mention of the word. He saw the evil through no mist or 
haze, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no line of its 
ten thousand horrors out of sight. Law, religion, learning, were 
interposed in its behalf in vain. His law in regard to it was that 
which Lord Brougham described, as " the law above all the enact- 
ments of human codes, the same in all time, the same throughout 
the world — the law unchangeable and eternal — the law written by 
the finger of God on the human heart — that law by which proper- 
ty in man is, and ever must remain, a wild and guilty phantasy." 

Against truth and right, legislative enactments were to his. 

mind mere cobwebs — the pompous emptiness of human pride 

the pitiful outbreathings of human nothingness. He used to say 
" whenever there is a right thing to be done, there is a ' thus- 
saith the Lord ' that it shall be done." 

It must be admitted that Brown assumed tremendous responsi- 
bility in making war upon the peaceful people of Harper's Ferry, 
but it must be remembered also that in his eye a slave-holding. 
community could not be peaceable, but was, in the nature of the 
case, in one incessant state of war. To him such a community- 
was not more sacred than a band of robbers : it was the right of 
any one to assault it by day or night He saw no hope that slav- 
ery would ever be abolished by moral or political means : "he 
knew," he said, " the proud and hard hearts of the slave-holders,. 
and that they never would consent to give up their slaves, till they 
felt a big stick about their heads." 

It was five years before this event at Harper's Ferry, while the 


conflict between freedom and slavery was waxing hotter and hotter 
with every hour, that the blundering statesmanship of the Nation- 
al Government repealed the Missouri compromise, and thus 
launched the territory of Kansas as a prize to be battled for be- 
tween the North and the South. The remarkable part taken in this 
contest by Brown has been already referred to, and it doubtless 
helped to prepare him for the final tragedy, and though it did not 
by any means originate the plan, it confirmed him in it and^has- 
tened its execution. 

During his four years' service in Kansas it was my good fortune 
to see him often. On his trips to and from the territory he some- 
times stopped several days at my house, and at one time several 
weeks. It was on this last occasion that liberty had been victo- 
rious in Kansas, and he felt that he must hereafter devote himself 
to what he considered his larger work. It was the theme of all 
his conversation, filling his nights with dreams and his days with 
visions. An incident of his boyhood may explain, in some meas- 
ure, the intense abhorrence he felt to slavery. He had for some 
reason been sent into the State of Kentucky, where he made the 
acquaintance of a slave boy, about his own age, of whom he be- 
came very fond. For 6ome petty offense this boy was one day 
subjected to a brutal beating. The blows were dealt with an iron 
shovel and fell fast and furiously upon his slender body. Born in a 
free State and unaccustomed to such scenes of cruelty, young 
Brown's pure and sensitive soul revolted at the shocking specta- 
cle and at that early age he swore eternal hatred to slavery. Aft- 
er years never obliterated the impression, and he found in 
this early experience an argument against contempt for small 
things. It is true that the boy is the father of the man. From 
the acorn comes the oak. The impression of a horse's foot in the 
sand suggested the art of printing. The fall of an apple intimat- 
ed the law of gravitation. A word dropped in the woods of Vin- 
cennes, by royal hunters, gave Europe and the world a " William 
the Silent," and a thirty years' war. The beating of a Hebrew 
bondsman, by an Egyptian, created a Moses, and the infliction of 
a similar outrage on a helpless slave boy in our own land may 
have caused, forty years afterwards, a John Brown and a Harper's 
Ferry Raid. 


Most of us can remember some event or incident which has at 
some time come to us, and made itself a permanent part of our 
lives. Such an incident came to me in the year 1847. I had 
then the honor of spending a day and a night under the roof of a 
man, whose character and conversation made a very deep im- 
pression on my mind and heart ; and as the circumstance does 
not lie entirely out of the range of our present observations, you 
will pardon for a moment a seeming digression. The name of 
the person alluded to had been several times mentioned to me, 
in a tone that made me curious to see him and to make his ac* 
quaintance. He was a merchant, and our first meeting was at 
his store — a substantial brick building, giving evidence of a flour- 
ishing business. After a few minutes' detention here, long enough 
for me to observe the neatness and order of the place, I was con- 
ducted by him to his residence where I was kindly received by 
his family as an expected guest. I was a little disappointed at 
the appearance of this man's house, for after seeing his fine store, 
I was prepared to see a fine residence ; but this logic was entire- 
ly contradicted by the facts. The house was a small, wooden 
one, on a back street in a neighborhood of laboring men and me- 
chanics, respectable enough, but not just the spot where one 
would expect to find the home of a successful merchant. Plain 
as was the outside, the inside was plainer. Its furniture might 
have pleased a Spartan. It would take longer to tell what was 
not in it, than what was ; no sofas, no cushions, no curtains, no 
carpets, no easy rocking chairs inviting to enervation or rest or 
repose. My first meal passed under the misnomer of tea. It 
was none of your tea and toast sort, but potatoes and cabbage, 
and beef soup ; such a meal as a man might relish after following 
the plough all day, or after performing a forced mar^h of a doz- 
en miles over rough ground in frosty weather. Innocent of 
paint, veneering, varnish or tablecloth, the table announced itself 
unmistakably and honestly pine and of the plainest workmanship. 
No hired help passed from kitchen to dining room, staring in 
amazement at the colored man at the white man's table. The 
mother, daughters and sons did the serving, and did it well. I 
heard no apology for doing their own work ; they went through 
it as if used to it, untouched by any thought of degradation or 


impropriety. Supper over, the boys helped to clear the table 
and wash the dishes. This style of housekeeping struck me as a 
little odd. I mention it because household management is wor- 
thy of thought. A house is more than brick and mortar, wood or 
paint ; this to me at least was. In its plainness it was a truthful 
reflection of its inmates : no disguises, no illusions, no make-be- 
lieves here, but stern truth and solid purpose breathed in all its 
arrangements. I was not long in company with the master of this 
house before I discovered that he was indeed the master of it, and 
likely to become mine too, if I staid long with him. He fulfilled 
St. Paul's idea of the head of the family — his wife believed in him, 
and his children observed him with reverence. Whenever he 
spoke, his words commanded earnest attention. His arguments 
which I ventured at some points to oppose, seemed to convince 
all, his appeals touched all, and his will impressed all. Certainly 
I never felt myself in the presence of a stronger religious influ- 
ence than while in this house. " God and duty, God and duty," 
run like a thread of gold through all his utterances, and his fam- 
ily supplied a ready "Amen." In person he was lean and sin- 
ewy, of the best New England mould, built for times of trouble, 
fitted to grapple with the flintiest hardships. Clad in plain 
American woolen, shod in boots of cowhide leather, and wearing 
a cravat of the same substantial material, under six feet high, 
less than one hundred and fifty lbs. in weight, aged about fifty, 
he presented a figure straight and symmetrical as a mountain 
pine. His bearing was singularly impressive. His head was not 
large, but compact and high. His hair was coarse, strong, slight- 
ly gray and closely trimmed and grew close to his forehead. His 
face was smoothly shaved and revealed a strong square mouth, 
supported \fy a broad and prominent chin. His eyes were clear 
and grey, and in conversation they alternated with tears and fire. 
When on the street, he moved with a long springing, race-horse 
step, absorbed by his own reflections, neither seeking nor shun- 
ning observation. Such was the man whose name I heard ut- 
tered in whispers — such was the house in which he lived — such 
were his family and household management — and such was Cap- 
tain John Brown. 

He said to me at this meeting, that he had invited me to his 


house for the especial purpose of laying before me his plan for 
the speedy emancipation of my race. He seemed to apprehend 
opposition on my part as he opened the subject and touched my 
vanity by saying, that he had observed my course at home and 
abroad, and wanted my co-operation. He said he had been for 
the last thirty years looking for colored men to whom he could 
safely reveal his secret, and had almost despaired, at times, of 
finding such, but that now he was encouraged for he saw heads 
rising up in all directions, to whom he thought he could with safe- 
ty impart his plan. As this plan then lay in his mind it was very 
simple, and had much to commend it. It did not, as was sup- 
posed by many, contemplate a general rising among the slaves, 
and a general slaughter of the slave masters (an insurrection he 
thought would only defeat the object), but it did contemplate the 
creating of an armed force which should act in the very heart of 
the South. He was not averse to the shedding of blood, and 
thought the practice of carrying arms would be a good one for 
the colored people to adopt, as it would give them a sense of 
manhood. No people he said could have self-respect or be re- 
spected who would not fight for their freedom. He called my at- 
tention to a large map of the U. States, and pointed out to me 
the far-reaching Alleghanies, stretching away from the borders of 
New York into the Southern States. "These mountains," he 
said, " are the basis of my plan. God has given the strength of 
these hills to freedom ; they were placed here to aid the emanci- 
pation of your race ; they are full of natural forts, where one 
man for defense would be equal to a hundred for attack ; they are 
also full of good hiding places "here a large number of men 
could be concealed and baffle and elude pursuit for a long time. 
I know these mountains well and could take a body of men into 
them and keep them there in spite of all the efforts of Virginia to 
dislodge me, and drive me out. I would take at first about 
twenty-five picked men and begin on a small scale, supply them 
arms and ammunition, post them in squads of fives on a line of 
twenty-five miles, these squads to busy themselves for a time in 
gathering recruits from the surrounding farms, seeking and select- 
ing the most restless and daring." He saw that in this part of 
the work the utmost care must be used to guard against treach- 


ery and disclosure ; only the most conscientious and skillful 
should be sent on this perilous duty. With care and enterprise 
he thought he could soon gather a force of one hundred hardy 
men, men who would be content to lead the free and adventur- 
ous life to which he proposed to train them. When once prop- 
erly drilled and each had found the place for which he was best 
suited, they would begin work in earnest ; they would run off the 
slaves in large numbers, retain the strong and brave ones in the 
mountains, and send the weak and timid ones to the North by 
the underground Rail-road ; his operations would be enlarged 
with increasing numbers and would not be confined to one local- 
ity. Slave-holders should in some cases be approached at mid- 
night and told to give up their slaves and to let them have their 
best horses to rid% away upon. Slavery was a state of war, he 
said, to which the slaves were unwilling parties and consequently 
they had a right to anything necessary to their peace and free- 
dom. He would shed no blood and would avoid a fight except 
in self-defense, when he would of course do his best. He be- 
lieved this movement would weaken slavery in two ways — first by 
making slave property insecure, it would become undesirable ; 
and secondly it would keep the anti-slavery agitation alive and 
public attention fixed upon it, and thus lead to the adoption of 
measures to abolish the evil altogether. He held that there was 
need of something startling to prevent the agitation of the ques- 
tion from dying out ; that slavery had come near being abolished 
in Virginia by the Nat. Turner insurrection, and he thought his 
method would speedily put an end to it, both in Maryland and 
Virginia. The trouble was to get f he right men to start with and 
money enough to equip them. He had adopted the simple and 
economical mode of living to which I have referred with a view 
to save money for this purpose. This was said in no boastful 
tone, for he felt that he had delayed already too long and had no 
room to boast either his zeal or his self-denial. 

From 8 o'clock in the evening till 3 in the morning, Capt. 
Brown and I sat face to face, he arguing in favor of his plan, and 
I finding all the objections I could against it. Now mark ! this 
meeting of ours was full twelve years before the strike at Har- 
per's Ferry. He had been watching and waiting all that time for 


suitable heads to rise or " pop up " as he said among the sable 
millions in whom he could confide ; hence forty years had passed 
between his thought and his act. Forty years, though not a long 
time in the life of a nation, is a long time in the life of a man ; 
and here forty long years, this man was struggling with this one 
idea ; like Moses he was forty years in the wilderness. Youth, 
manhood, middle age had come and gone ; two marriages had 
been consummated, twenty children had called him father ; and 
through all the storms and vicissitudes of busy life, this one 
thought, like the angel in the burning bush, had confronted him 
with its blazing light, bidding him on to his work. Like Moses 
he had made excuses, and as with Moses his excuses were over- 
ruled. Nothing should postpone further what was to him a di- 
vine command, the performance of which seemed to him his on- 
ly apology for existence. He often said to me, though life was 
sweet to him, he would willingly lay it down for the freedom of 
my people ; and on one occasion he added, that he had already 
lived about as long as most men, since he had slept less, and if 
he should now lay down his life the loss would not be great, for 
in fact he knew no better use for it. During his last visit to us 
in Rochester there appeared in the newspapers a touching story 
connected with the horrors of the Sepoy War in British India. A 
Scotch missionary and his family were in the hands of the enemy, 
and were to be massacred the next morning. During the night, 
when they had given up every hope of rescue, suddenly the wife 
insisted that relief would come. Placing her ear close to the 
ground she declared she heard the Slogan — the Scotch war song. 
For long hours in the night no member of the family could hear 
the advancing music but herself. " Dinna ye hear it ? Dinna ye 
hear it?" she would say, but they could not hear it. As the 
morning slowly dawned a Scotch regiment was found encamped 
indeed about them, and they were saved from the threatened 
slaughter. This circumstance, coming at such a time, gave Capt. 
Brown a new word of cheer. He would come to the table in the 
morning his countenance fairly illuminated, saying that he had 
heard the Slogan, and he would add, " Dinna ye hear it? Dinna 
ye hear it?" Alas ! like the Scotch missionary I was obliged to 
say " No." Two weeks prior to the meditated attack, Capt. 


Brown summoned me to meet him in an old stone quarry on the 
Conecochequi river, near the town of Chambersburgh, Penn. 
His arms and ammunition were stored in that town and were to 
be moved on to Harper's Ferry. In company with Shields Green 
I obeyed the summons, and prompt to the hour we met the dear 
old man, with Kagi, his secretary, at the appointed place. Our 
meeting was in some sense a council of war. We spent the Sat- 
urday and succeeding Sunday in conference on the question, 
whether the desperate step should then be taken, or the old plan 
as already described should be carried out. He was for boldly 
striking Harper's Ferry at once and running the risk of getting 
into the mountains afterwards. I was for avoiding Harper's Fer- 
ry altogether. Shields Green and Mr. Kagi remained silent lis- 
teners throughout. It is needless to repeat here what was said, 
after what has happened. Suffice it, that after all I could say, I 
saw that my old friend had resolved on his course and that it was 
idle to parley. I told him finally that it was impossible for me to 
join him. I could see Harper's Ferry only as a trap of steel, and 
ourselves in the wrong side of it. He regretted my decision and 
we parted. 

Thus far, I have spoken exclusively of Capt. Brown. Let me 
say a word or two of his brave and devoted men, and first of 
Shields Green. He was a fugitive slave from Charleston, South 
Carolina, and had attested his love of liberty by escaping from slav- 
ery and making his way through many dangers to Rochester, 
where he had lived in my family, and where he met the man with 
whom he went to the scaffold. I said to him, as I was about to 
leave, " Now Shields, you have heard our discussion. If in view of 
it, you do not wish to stay, you have but to say so, and you can 
go back with me." He answered, " I b'l'eve I'll go wid de old 
man ; " and go with him he did, into the fight, and to the gallows, 
and bore himself as grandly as any of the number. At the mo- 
ment when Capt. Brown was surrounded, and all chance of escape 
was cut off, Green was in the mountains and could have made 
his escape as Osborne Anderson did, but when asked to do so, 
he made the same answer he did at Chambersburg, " I b'l'eve I'll 
go down wid de ole man." When in prison at Charlestown, and 
he was not allowed to see his old triend, his fidelity to him was in 


no wise weakened, and no complaint against Brown could be ex- 
torted from him by those who talked with him. 

If a monument should be erected to the memory of John 
Brown, as there ought to be, the form and name of Shields Green 
should have a conspicuous place upon it It is a remarkable 
fact, that in this small company of men, but one showed any sign 
of weakness or regret for what he did or attempted to do. Poor 
Cook broke down and sought to save his life by representing that 
he had been deceived, and allured by false promises. But 
Stephens, Hazlett and Green went to their doom like the heroes 
they were, without a murmur, without a regret, believing alike in 
their captain and their cause. 

For the disastrous termination of this invasion, several causes 
have been assigned. It has been said that Capt. Brown found it 
necessary to strike before he was ready ; that men had promised 
to join him from the North who failed to arrive ; that the coward- 
ly negroes did not rally to his support as he expected, but the 
true cause as stated by himself, contradicts all these theories, and 
from his statement there is no appeal. Among the questions put 
to him by Mr. Vallandingham after his capture were the follow- 
ing 1 : " Did you expect a general uprising of the slaves in case of 
your success?" To this he answered, " No, sir, nor did I wish it. 
I expected to gather strength from time to time and then to set 
them free." " Did you expect to hold possession here until 
then?" Answer, "Well, probably I had quite a different idea. 
I do not know as I ought to reveal my plans. I am here wound- 
ed and a prisoner because I foolishly permitted myself to be so. 
You overstate your strength when you suppose I could have been 
taken if I had not allowed it. I was too tardy after commencing 
the open attack in delaying my movements through Monday 
night and up to the time of the arrival of government troops. It 
was all because of my desire to spare the feelings of my prisoners 
and their families." 

But the question is, Did John Brown fail? He certainly did 
fail to get out of Harper's Ferry before being beaten down by 
United States soldiers ; he did fail to save his own life, and to 
lead a liberating army into the mountains of Virginia. But he 
did not go to Harper's Ferry to save his life. The true question 


is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby 
lose his life in vain? and to this I answer ten thousand times, No ! 
No man fails, or can fail who so grandly gives himself and all he 
has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest 
need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so 
forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated 
race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail. 
Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose house less 
than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was 
taught. Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the au- 
thor of the inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in- 
Fort Warren, as a traitor less than two years from the time that he 
stood over the prostrate body of John Brown. Did John Brown 
fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one other of the inquisi- 
torial party ; for he too went down in the tremendous whirlpool 
created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John 
Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least 
begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, 
places and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find 
that not Carolina, but Virginia — not Fort Sumpter, but Harper's 
Ferry and the arsenal — not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began 
the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Re- 
public. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was 
dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one 
of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched 
forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was 
gone — the armed hosts of freedom stpod face to face over the 
chasm of a broken Union — and the clash of arms was at hand. 
The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Gov- 
ernment, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and 
thus made her own, and not Brown's, the lost cause of the cen-